Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part I)

Just like it says on the tin: as promised, I’m continuing my foray into the Halo franchise with the ever so creatively titled sequel Halo 2. Obviously I had a few… issues with the original installment so we’ll see how this goes.

So right off the bat I find myself a bit more amenable to this game. Halo 2 was made three years after Combat Evolved and two things are immediately very obvious: one, the Bungie staff got a lot better at their craft at least insofar as dramatic presentation was concerned and two, they also figured out how to get a lot more power out of the original Xbox. This particular phenomenon has always interested me because while PC gaming is always taking advantage of new advancements in hardware console developers are pretty much stuck with the same static system for the better part of a decade. Without getting into flame war territory over which is better, it’s nonetheless pretty impressive how developers for the consoles are able to figure out how to get more and more juice out of an unchanging platform. If you look at launch titles for something like the Playstation 2 and then compare that to some of the last runs of games that were released for it (Resident Evil 4, God of War II) it can be pretty crazy how far developers can push a system to get some really impressive results out of it. Halo 2 wasn’t quite at the end of the life cycle for the Xbox, but the graphical improvements over Combat Evolved are both obvious and welcome, and along with those improvements comes a much more interesting and active camera during cutscenes.

So Halo 2 immediately takes things in a different direction than its predecessor. Instead of picking up right where we left of with Chief and Cortana, we open with the Covenant. And at the forefront of this sequence is a lone Elite voiced by none other than Keith freaking David, one of my favorite voice actors. David has one of those immediately commanding and recognizable voices that lends a lot of character to whatever role he’s in and makes those characters a lot of fun to listen to. Things were definitely looking promising at this point.

Something of a dig at the original but this really was meant to be a big compliment for what I was already seeing in the sequel. See, one of my problems with the first game was that everything was just kind of lifeless: I didn’t care about the people on my side that I presumably was supposed to care about and all the enemies had that kind of 90s era “evil space alien” vibe to them that would have made them feel more at home in an arcade than anywhere else. Halo 2 goes a long way towards fixing that by immediately introducing us to the Covenant on a more personal level and as such they make the leap from being simple enemies to being real antagonists. In the opening few minutes we see that the Covenant have a distinct culture, a system of social and political hierarchy, and even prominent religious establishments that seem to take the lead in most matters relating to military and political action. While it’s all thrown at you a bit suddenly and we don’t have a lot of context for it at first glance this really is a huge deal: the Covenant aren’t just objects in a shooting gallery anymore but now they’re real characters.

But we do eventually have to make our way back to our supposed main character and in doing so we’re once again treated to a “which way would you like to turn your head” control orientation. This being the second time we do this goes a bit further towards making this process seem more like standard operating procedure for anyone wearing powered armor, though “reversing tilt axis of your own head” is still just downright baffling.

I guess his name is actually Sgt. Johnson but seeing as how he’s basically just a cheap knockoff of the same character everyone’s been trying and failing to emulate since Full Metal Jacket I’m going to stick with my own naming schemes. It is a bit jarring given that I’m reasonably sure this “character” wasn’t meant to be anything more than a stock NCO stand-in during the main game (I don’t believe he’s ever named in Combat Evolved and is addressed only by rank) and I’m pretty sure he died several times during the course of that misadventure (I may have actually shot him once myself by accident) but I’m willing to look past it. While this is kind of a transparent ploy to try to turn their simple space adventure story into more of a space epic piece (though I use that term loosely) it’s not like we haven’t seen this done before in video games. Barney Calhoun in the Half-Life games is probably the Ur Example of this particular trope and those games are pretty fantastic. As the video game medium grows and individual franchises mature and develop they’ll often expand upon previously minute aspects of previous iterations so as to more richly develop a story or universe. It’s not what anyone would call a seamless development but when games sometimes shoot themselves in the foot with re-used assets and hardware limitations of the past in earlier titles then I guess we’ll take what we can get.

And much like the “About that beer I owe you” line, Halo similarly hangs a lamphsade on the fact that Johnson was a throwaway stock asset in the original by having another character ask how he survived that business on Halo. The answer is predictably “classified” (because let’s be honest, there isn’t one).

This part of the game takes place on a large orbital defense station above Earth. As we proceed along its hallways and get a few kinda cool vistas of other similar stations, Johnson runs his mouth about how such a defensive grid is “all but impenetrable”. Maybe he doesn’t watch much TV (or read much history) but the best way to guarantee that your defenses will be beat is to proclaim them to be unbeatable. The Death Star, The Titanic, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall: all engineering marvels that were supposedly invincible and all nonetheless inevitably defeated. Even ignoring the fact that we obviously needed something to kick off the conflict of the game we were pretty much doomed from this point on.

So despite the previously really endearing things the game has showed me up through now, this is where some of my first real complaints start to spring up. Like a lot of other games (Mass Effect, Half Life, God of War), Halo seems to have allowed the real-world hype over the “bad-assery” of its characters to seep into the fiction of the game world. Everybody you talk to on the station has their lips firmly locked onto your ass. You can’t go two steps without somebody telling you how great you are, and all of this is happening while you’re on your way to get a prestigious military honor for your work on Halo. I get that the Chief would have a reputation by now (and yet still somehow hasn’t advanced beyond Petty Officer), but it felt less like the characters were talking to the Chief and more like they were trying to stoke some pathetic juvenile power fantasy of the player. It made me pretty uncomfortable.

All this revelry is interrupted, however, when a couple of Covenant warships warp into orbit around Earth. We know from dialogue in the previous game that the Covenant don’t actually know where Earth is, and defending this information is of the utmost importance to the war effort. Yet now when they find it and presumably can begin a full-scale invasion of the birthplace of humanity nobody seems to be too upset. When the radar contacts show up and the ships appear all of the high-ranking military officials seem to just sigh wearily and half-heartedly start organizing a defense.

This scene is inexplicably devoid of all emotion when it should be an incredibly high-intensity sequence. I mean, the big bad aliens just found Earth. Remember how freaked out people were when that happened in Independence Day? Cities were blowing up, people were dying, and everyone was scrambling around in poorly-organized terror trying to fight back. It was a really tense event, conveyed by the panic and emotions of the characters. What should be a similar scene in Halo 2 has none of the same emotion and as such we the audience don’t feel nearly as engaged or invested as we could. Perhaps they were trying to show that the UNSC was prepared and competent, which is fine, but they shouldn’t do so at the cost of our investment in the events of the story. Earth was being attacked and I was falling asleep because Colonel Yawn and Captain Snooze couldn’t give so much as a shouted order.

Hoo boy. We’re not even out of the intro cutscenes yet and I’m already drawing dangerously close to the “too long” limit for one of these things. Granted, there is a lot of exposition dump going on in these opening minutes so there’s a lot to talk about, but still. I’m gonna go ahead and call it there and on Wednesday we’ll actually get to pick up a gun and see if Chief’s still got the moves.

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